The Hi Vis

Fluorescent, Neon, Day Glo™ and ‘Hi Vis’(-ability) all describe an acuity to wavelengths of light that form a very particular set of colours. These are colours that combine high and low frequencies to generate a peculiar flatness that appears to be ‘illuminated’ within its surroundings. These ‘Hi Vis’ colours have been present in the non-human realm since before human records began with some animals, such as the Peacock Mantis Shrimp, having evolved with a wide gamut of visual acuity [^1] that seem to match their vivid, multi-coloured shells.

The widespread acuity in the human and non-human realm to fluorescent colours is also evidenced by many of the plants [^2] and animals that deploy types of Aposematism. One branch of which describes how clothing in vivid colours wards off potential predators, usually denoting toxicity when touched or eaten, or that certain eye-catching plants or animals may retaliate by using venom or similar poisons and irritants. This approach has been seen as useful to less toxic or lethal animals and plants as a deterrent in the form of mimicry—i.e. deploying colour as a warning sans defensive capabilities.

In the exclusively human realm, the proliferation of Hi Vis has been linked to the evolution of specific dyes and the subsequent industrialisation and commercialisation of said dyes [^3]. Currently, the most prevalent ‘origin story’ is that of the Switzers brothers who claimed the mantle of being the first to make and market fluorescent colours under the name ‘Day-Glo’. The story goes like this…

Amongst the dying embers of the spiritualist movement [^4], amateur magician Joe Switzer’s brother Bob, suffers an industrial accident and is confined to the dark basement of their father’s pharmacy to negate an acquired sensitivity to light. To fill time while Bob recovers the two brothers start to play around with powders found in the pharmacy to produce ‘glowing’ illusions that Joe would incorporate into his stage act. Soon other magicians took notice of Joe’s unusual illusions and the brothers started selling small qualities of their glowing concoctions. Jumping several years forward [^5], their product is soon picked up by—firstly the moving picture industry for use in the hand-painted advertising that used to adorn cinema foyers, and secondly by the US military as a preferred supplier.

The Switzers association with the US Army would prove especially lucrative and would enable them to develop new dyes that were less reliant on black light or external illumination and could be seen to radiate in common daylight conditions. Buoyed by military support, The Dayglo Color Corp would go on to develop dyes for fabrics as well as many other applications including for use in cosmetics and food packaging, amongst others uses. If you would like to find out more, the Day-Glo origin story continues to be covered in detail by a number of publications [^6].

Fluorescent dye manufacturers today are many and varied. The universal appeal of Hi Vis colours has led to the continuing growth of an international network of specialist dye makers and a wide range of Hi Vis tones, shades, techniques and compositions. Hi Vis colours and materials have also become enmeshed in standards and legislation around safety, particularly within the construction industry. This is possibly Hi Vis’ most well-known incarnation at present but the links from this to many varied applications, communities and issues is vast.

This Index is a result of research into Hi Vis as a highly volatile field that emits many signals, often forging connections to societal issues and/or movements that overlap with design, both as a practice built on intent, and one that escapes control to inhabit surprising and unexpected new forms. If you would like to contribute get in touch via @research.catalogue or email michael[at]rescat[dot]site

Further reading:
[‘Hi Vis: Toxic Trades, Constructed Masculinity & The Vibrance of Anonymity’ via Futuress]


[^1]: “Mantis shrimp sport the most complex visual system of any living animal. They are unique in that they have a pair of eyes that move independently of each other, each with stereoscopic vision and possessing a band of photoreceptors that can distinguish up to 12 different wavelengths as well as linear and circular polarised light. Humans, by comparison, can only perceive three wavelengths: red, green and blue.”—[]
[^2]: Lev-Yadun, Simcha. ‘Aposematic (Warning) Coloration in Plants’. [PDF download]
[^3]: For brevity, we are jumping over early experiments with the type of fluorescent material usually termed ‘phosphorous’ linked to the development of the type of radioactive material used in watch faces and the like leading to the tragic story of the Radium Girls, although as the Hi Vis Index progresses there should be room for expanding upon this field. See [ via Internet Archive]
[^4]: …which, at the time, was being transmogrified by an imposed hierarchy of white male protagonists (Former Spiritualists turned Magicians) from a multi-faceted and variously gendered field into that of mere ‘magic’. For further reading see Owen, Alex. 'The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England'.
[^5]: For a more complete story see []
[^6]: A quick search will unveil numerous articles that follow a similar lineage, exemplifying how potent an origin story the Switzers managed to construct in the marketing of Day-Glo as commercial product. Here is one to start off with… []
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